Looking at the colours that spread from soaking saffron threads in water, is for me a visual reminder of what Spain and Spanish food is about. The colours, the natural flow and almost a feeling of freedom, as it steeps in the water. And then, the smell….
Like the strands infuse the water and changes the colour forever, so you are changed forever when you open yourself up to the Spanish tradition of Flamenco. My change started when, being dismal at ballet (too tall, too boyish), I followed my mother’s interest in Spanish dancing; and never looked back. The result was that for a large part of my life, until deep into my 30’s, I lived my other passion, Flamenco, alongside everyday life.
Once you’ve been drawn in by Flamenco, it never lets you go. It’s there in your soul and your heart. Ask anyone that’s been involved in it. Hear a rhythm, see a specific colour or just get a smell and there’s something that stirs in your soul. It is almost like a sacred moment.
I used to dance with La Rosa Spanish Dance Theatre. During my time with the company I had the opportunity to go to Spain with a group of the girls, to learn from some of our Flamenco heroes. Till this day, I can still remember the smell of Madrid that early morning when we arrived. My first chocolate con churros at a café on our way to the Amor de Dios school to go and register. The afternoon lunches at the bar closest to the studio in Madrid and the walk back in the evenings, when people were dropping in at the tapas bars, the olives being sold next to the road, the museo de jamon’s ham selection, the pastry shops and I can go on for ever.
Let’s just get one thing straight though, it was first and foremost about the dancing. We did spend long hours in the studios with only siesta time, evenings and weekends to ourselves. Blistered and bruised toes, sore muscles and tired bodies, we had it all to show. But I think with the amount of hours we danced, food became important. I’m sure we were constantly hungry.
And the Spanish people fed us, trust me. When we were in Sevilla, there was a bar in Triana, named Kika, close to the studio where we were dancing. It was looked after by the most gentle barman, that always made our tapas portions just that bit bigger than the other patrons’. With the delivery of said larger tapas servings, we were constantly told that dancers must eat!
I can go on for hours about Spain, the dancing, being exposed to those unmarked, backstreet, no tourist places where you get to see true Flamenco. But we have to get to Caterina’s paella (in ode to my stage name: Caterina Estevez ). When the yearning for Flamenco and Spain is too much, I start steeping those saffron strands and getting ready to make this paella. It brings back the memories of the smells and flavours. I just add a flamenco CD and I’m back in the studios and streets.
When making paella, you will be told you must have a paella pan. However, I’m aware that not everyone will have a paella pan. Therefore, I’ve broken some cardinal Paella rules (like covering the dish, sautéing things separately – but in the same pan – and fiddling a bit with the stock), to make it easier if you don’t have a paella pan. I’ve also not included rabbit (as is traditional in some cases), but stuck to chicken.
Join me on my journey with these flavours and I hope you can hear the guitar and the rhythms from a dancer in your mind.
10 saffron strands
250 ml (1 cup) boiling water
Salt to season chicken
4 chicken thighs (1 per person)
4 chicken drumsticks (1 per person)
2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) smoked paprika
30 ml Olive oil, to sauté
4 chorizo sausages, sliced
2 red or yellow peppers, sliced
500 ml (2 cups) uncooked white rice
250 ml (1 cup) white wine
10 ml (2 tsp) salt
3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
750 ml (3 cups) chicken stock
250 ml (1 cup) frozen peas
(With the seafood I worked on 6 of each per person)
24 deveined, shells on small to medium prawns, defrosted
24 half-shell mussels, defrosted and beards removed
1 lemon, cut in wedges to serve
Pour the boiling water over your saffron strands and let this steep for at least 30 minutes.
Use a large heavy based pot, with a tight fitting lid, if you don’t have a paella pan.
Heat your olive oil in this pot.
Rub your chicken pieces on both sides with the smoked paprika – be generous.
Then season well with salt.
Brown your chicken pieces in the pot for around 10 – 15 minutes on both sides until nice and golden. Remove and set aside.
In the same pot fry your chorizo till they’re nice and crispy. Remove and set aside.
Again in the same pot, fry your peppers until they’re tender. Remove and set aside.
(Your pot should have enough oil, as the frying of the chicken and chorizo would’ve rendered some fat as well. If too much, pour some off into a heat proof cup and keep as back up.)
To this oil in the pot, add your rice and stir to coat with all the oil. Let the rice toast in the pot for around 2 – 3 minutes. Toasting the rice is a very important part of making paella.
Now add the wine and cook until it’s absorbed and you don’t smell the alcohol anymore.
Add the water with the saffron strands, your salt, garlic, crispy chorizo, peppers and the chicken stock to the pot.
Bring it to the boil, then turn down to simmer.
Add your chicken back to the pot, cover with the lid and let this simmer for 45 – 60 minutes or until your chicken is cooked through. Stir the rice regularly to make sure it doesn’t stick. If your rice gets too dry, add some more stock, stir and cover with the lid again.
When your chicken is done, stir once more and then add the frozen peas, prawns and mussels. Cover with the lid and let cook until your prawns are done – they will be nice and pink. This should take around 10 or 15 minutes.
Serve on a platter with lemon wedges on the side.